The Top 12 Reasons to Work in Nonprofit

by Joan Garry

There are days when it can be just plain hard to work at a nonprofit. Today and on those days, this reminder may help.

Perhaps by now you’ve seen the Tumblr site, When You Work At A Nonprofit. The site positions nonprofit work in the grimmest (and most hilarious) of lights. It has gone viral with 100,000 views and scores of submissions daily. It is brutally honest and laugh out loud funny.

It’s clever and I really wish I had come up with it myself.

The founders, Leah Neaderthal and Leanne Pittsford hope that the site will lead to an improvement in nonprofit workplaces.

Me too.

But they have made the option of working at a nonprofit seem, well… horrifying.

As someone who joined the nonprofit space in my late 30s, I believe deeply that nonprofit work is way less than horrifying.

While Leah and Leanne guide you down Irreverent Lane, please join me for a stroll down Schmaltzy Blvd.


#12:  You learn how to maneuver and manipulate difficult people with big egos and get them to do what you want (i.e. good stuff).

#11:  You become a teacher. You have the chance to go home and share with friends and loved ones the stories of your work and your clients, educating them about the magnitude of the issue your organization grapples with.

#10:  You rest your weary head on your pillow each night knowing that it could be worse.

#9:  You develop critical skills in diplomacy, managing wildly disparate stakeholders with different ideas and agendas (and you pray that they never invent something that makes thought balloons visible to the naked eye.)

#8:  You learn what separates really classy centerpieces from really tacky ones.

#7:  You find out how incredible it is to work every day with others who care deeply about their work.

#6:  If you ever work for a gay nonprofit, you learn that gay people may be bullied, harassed, unprotected by federal employment discrimination and have a higher incidence of suicide than any population but that they are the funniest people ever. (And they will make sure you never wear anything tacky to a major donor fundraiser.)

#5:  You meet the most amazing people with the most remarkable stories that will stick with you forever. And I’m not just talking about clients. I’m talking about staff and what brought them to you. I’m talking about board members and their journeys. I’m talk about donors small and large and moving and often surprising paths that led them to you.

#4:  As a board member, you meet people you would never have met otherwise. You arrive thinking you might be the smartest person in the room. And then you realize you’re not. And instead of being irritated, you are just simply impressed.

#3:  You remember that people are three dimensional and not just workers. They have lives and stories and families they carry with them every day. And what they carry makes them rock stars.

#2:  Even if you find that nonprofit staff or board work is not for you, you can look back and say without hesitation that you devoted your time and energy to something that really and truly mattered. A life without this is simply not a life well led.

#1  People watch. And they listen. I talk to my family about the clients I serve — about the scope and magnitude of human sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, about the AIDS epidemic (yup, still an epidemic), about gay teen suicide, about the lack of access to higher education for marginalized communities, about local nature centers, about the power of community centers to bring people together. I ask our friend Sylvia to talk over dinner about the night each month she works in a homeless shelter affiliated with her synagogue. I ask her to tell stories. And my children listen.

I believe that all who live in the nonprofit sandbox are teachers and role models. The joy we take in working every day on something we care deeply about should be contagious. We should be spreading it around.

We need to feel like we are part of a movement. A movement to repair the world. In Judaism, it’s called Tikkun Olum. It’s easier in English. Repairing the world.

One frustrating and joyful step at a time.


1. If you liked this post and think others would too, can I ask you to please share it? You can just click one of the icons below to share on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

2. Leave a comment below letting me know what you think are the top reasons for working in nonprofit.

3. Make sure to look at the Tumblr site that inspired this post (if you haven’t already) – When You Work At A Nonprofit. It really is quite funny.

17 thoughts on “The Top 12 Reasons to Work in Nonprofit”

  1. What I do makes sense to me as a person. (But please don’t tell me I must feel good about what I do.)

  2. Really thought provoking email. This is one of those moments were I wish we could teleport over to a coffee shop and have this conversation in person. I’m extremely troubled by the belief that people should feel “lucky” or “blessed” to do work they care about. It’s because of this very belief that these problems exist: that we don’t pay people what they’re worth, we don’t invest time or money into creating a healthy working environment (which studies show boosts loyalty and productivity), and we don’t provide growth opportunities. And we actually make it difficult to get work done because we don’t invest in the systems or operations that allow an organization to function properly, there are endless bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and the battle of egos and titles is constantly at play (which makes sense when you consider that no one is paid well, so they have to derive autonomy and self-worth from *somewhere*). We don’t have to do these basic things, because conventional wisdom says that you should feel privileged to work here. If you follow that thought to its logical conclusion, then the belief that working in a nonprofit is a “gift” isn’t a *response* to the “When You Work At A Nonprofit” blog. It’s the reason the blog exists in the first place.

  3. I had a very interesting debate about this with colleagues in Aspen over the weekend at the Brookings Institute’s Blum Round Table – are social entrepreneurs different than regular entrepreneurs? In some ways, YES – we are struggling to make things work in places where things sometimes cannot work; in other ways, NO – we are all trying to “do things” to solve problems or fill gaps in markets. We are all trying to make a living and get things done. There is no “sense of privilege” but rather a sense of “interest” that determines which path we take. Most of the reasons listed above are true for people working in companies or organizations that interest them. I agree, working at a chinese restaurant vs. working in a nonprofit is better, but thats because they are completely different. Why not compare working at GE Energy vs. working for a nonprofit? I am not sure whether the above proves that non-profits are a privelaged place; the point Leanne makes is really valid – just because you work at a nonprofit, doesnt mean you should be cutting your need to get paid; the justification of “salary cuts” because you’re “saving the world” doesnt make sense.

  4. I currently work at 2 nonprofits. I teach ESL and Adult Basic Education at one and am the President of a new one that helps marginalized girls in Kenya. I’ve worked in corporate before and never felt the way I do now while working in nonprofit. Working in corporate was for the bottom line – money. My bottom line now is people! Big difference! Yes, I’m blessed and honored to be in the nonprofit sector.

  5. Leanne. First off, we don’t have to teleport over to a coffee shop. Let’s skype sometime soon. Your response was very thought provoking. I could not agree with you more that the work environment in many nonprofits are deeply dysfunction and employers are often uncivil as they work to create a more civil society in their own particular sector. I completely agree that substantive change to the work environment and the level of respect offered to employees is vital and long overdue. But this does not mean that, as an individual and in terms of personal fulfillment, there are real and clear and profound reasons to spend time working at a nonprofit. This post was not intended as a rebuttal to suggest that nonprofit employees should put up with what you bring to light in your blog. Not at all. It just prompted me to offer my own thoughts about what the work can give to people. Does this make sense? Let’s teleport via skype sometime and continue the conversation.

  6. Ajaita. Hope you’ll read through my response to Leanne. Again, my intention was not to suggest that people should slog through the dysfunction and inequitable environments that many nonprofits “offer” to their employees simply because it is a privilege to work for a worthy cause. My point was one about the personal satisfaction working for a cause brings. And the modeling one does for those around them. I hope that Leanne and Leah’s blog shines a light on how uncivil organizations are that are in the business of building a more civil society.

  7. Thanks for your response. It totally makes sense, I just worry that our focus on the intangible personal benefit clouds our thinking about monetary compensation, and is at least somewhat correlated with the tremendous inequality in compensation for time spent. I’d love to Skype or grab coffee when we’re back in NYC. Feel free to email me at Also, I thought you’d enjoy my blog post, “Why we started the ‘When You Work at a Nonprofit Tumblr'”:

  8. I enjoyed this Top 12 list and really needed it tonight (board meeting night!). I love working in non-profit for the flexibility of my schedule. Plus, I get a sneak peak into so many different businesses and organizations. It is so interesting to see what the atmosphere, “working style” in each place is like. Continuing to prove to me that things can rise or fall based on leadership. Just a few random thoughts. Love your work!

  9. For more on this topic, please read Dan Pallotta’s work. He is spot on regarding payment of non-profit workers.

  10. Thanks Joan! This and the 10 Things to do when having a bad day were just what I needed this week.

  11. This is so timely. I’m an interim executive director about to become permanent, and I’ve had a much clearer understanding of the negatives of nonprofit work lately. it’s so helpful to take a moment to step back and look at the positives, which we rarely do because they aren’t a problem that needs to be fixed.

  12. I’ve been working in nonprofits for nonprofits for 25 years, currently doing consulting, and am on three boards. There are endless frustrations – but the sense of building and transforming the community is endlessly satisfying. I think we should be grateful to have work to do – npo or corporate – and a place to share our gifts and talents.

  13. “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
    I have dedicated my life and energy to “moving the football” in the right direction down the field. Before there were ever any great leaders of social change, there were thousands of people who had “prepared the soil” with their courage and integrity.
    I also do very excellent work for little or no pay as an act of protest. I know the work I do is important. I also know that there are people who try to control everything by controlling the economy (imposing “economic sanctions” against activities that could change or challenge the status quo). But, guess what? I keep showing up anyway. I keep succeeding anyway. I refuse to leave my post. I say “not on my watch” will I hand over the future of humanity to those who worship the profit motive … just so I could be a little more comfortable.
    This does not mean that I am opposed to elevating the quality of the workplace, or the public’s perception of our value in the community. In fact, the opposite is true. If we shine so brightly that our light becomes a beacon, then our messages become “normative” and part of the collective consciousness (and our causes prosper despite the cards being stacked against us).
    I cannot imagine a better reason for living than to spend my days in the service of a better world.

  14. Read this posting again after a long time has passed. This is a damned good article! Every time I think I’m going to leave the nonprofit sector, I always sign up again. Finding that zen place can be a challenge (I find that taking a walk and talking to my dog are my best vehicles for this), but you have to do it, not just to survive but to be effective. Aside from the technical stuff, these are the issues I deal with most frequently as a consultant. It’s hard work, but I love it.

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